A pair of tractors roll across a former soybean field near the Twin Cities, planting a rich mix of 25 different types of seed. In time, this plowed-up field will return to what it once was — a native prairie.
"With any luck and with some good weather, we’ll have a nice prairie growing here by the end of this year," said Joe Schaeffer, co-owner of Minnesota Native Landscapes, which was hired to do the prairie restoration.
Grasslands are one of the most threatened and least protected habitat types on Earth. The Nature Conservancy has restored many prairies in its history but never before has it done so for the sole purpose of harvesting them for their energy.
Neal Feeken, the Conservancy’s Renewable Energy Coordinator, looks over this 23-acre field and sees the potential for so much more.
"The Nature Conservancy is exploring opportunities to create economic incentives for landowners to restore prairie," Feeken said. "One of the things we’re most interested in is trying to produce bioenergy from prairie grasses."
"Technology exists right now that can convert prairie grasses into electricity through a combustion process. There's market demand for alternative energy and we’re working to restore prairie grasses out on the landscape to try and fill that demand."
Anyone who has ever witnessed a prairie fire knows that prairie plants contain tremendous energy. In fact, prairie-based biomass, or plant matter, has roughly the same energy content as lignite — the coal commonly used to generate electricity in the upper Midwest.
Recent research from the University of Minnesota shows prairies with a diverse mix of grasses and wildflowers can produce 238 percent more energy and require less fertilizer and tillage than single species crops like corn or switchgrass when burned for electricity.
The Conservancy is working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and local Soil and Water Conservation Districts to restore more than 100 acres of farmland in the Twin Cities area this spring and summer to demonstrate the power of prairies.
Thanks to a gift from the Alliant Energy Foundation, the Conservancy will also restore prairies in Wisconsin this fall to create even more energy crops.
"The country is looking for renewable sources of energy," Feeken said. "And we believe prairie grasses and native prairie plants can become an important and sustainable source for meeting our energy needs.."
The prairie plantings are part of a new Conservancy strategy to show how prairies can become a source of renewable and sustainable energy — all while conserving wildlife habitat; improving water quality in lakes, rivers and aquifers; mitigating flooding and reducing carbon emissions.
For more information, contact Neal Feeken, Renewable Energy Coordinator, at (612) 331-0738 or via email.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.